Rs. 27m spent for teargas to quell Aragalaya and other protesters in 3 months last yearView(s):
- Victims say they have suffered long-term coughs, phlegm, irritation of the throat, and in some cases, asthma
By Tharushi Weerasinghe
“It feels like fire is crawling inside your throat and eyes, seeping into your skin with a sting that can’t be wiped away because your hands are burning, too. If there’s a crowd, running isn’t an option, you’re basically blinded for a little while so you can’t see where you’re running anyway — you just kneel over there suffocating until someone else pours water down your face and leads you to safety.”
The fiery pain of tear gas on one’s face, in one’s throat, eyes, and nose, became a sensation that some Sri Lankans could relate to over the last year.
Dissent in Sri Lanka is often met with tear gas and water cannon fired by the Sri Lanka Police. Mass protests that culminated in the Galle Face protest site as a result of the economic and political crises last year, were often subdued with police tear gas and water cannon blasts.
Some protesters have died and some deths have been attributed to complications following tear gas attacks. Sri Lanka Police are now being accused of abusing the use of the riot control agent. Lawyers have also filed complaints with human rights authorities, the police, and courts.
Sri Lankans who have been exposed to tear gas allege that they have suffered long-term coughs, phlegm, irritation of the throat, and in some cases, asthma.
Sri Lanka Police have spent Rs. 27 million to purchase tear gas between March and July 2022. Police have fired more than 6,700 tear gas canisters during this period.
Over 3,000 of these canisters had been fired over 12 days between 5 July and 17 July, 2022.
In response to a Right to Information request filed by the Sunday Times, the police said there were no records at the central armory of the tear gas that had been fired since July 18, 2022.
According to information obtained by the Sunday Times, each tear gas canister costs Rs. 2,626 and each tear gas grenade costs Rs. 12,703.
Tear gas is classified as a riot control agent and is prohibited for use in war under the Chemical Weapons Convention that Sri Lanka is party to. Its use is also largely unregulated in Sri Lanka as the only regulatory instrument for it is found in the Departmental Orders section of the Police Ordinance which merely speaks of the “use of force” in general.
The RTI response also reveals that canisters often comprised CS contents, potassium chlorate, and CS powder. But, quality checks are not done. A technical committee approves specifications for tenders.
“There have been cases of severe vomiting and exacerbated gastritis following a dose of tear gas apart from the general throat, nose, and skin burning that people experienced,” said Dr. Sanduni Perera, a medical officer who served as a volunteer medical officer in the Red Cross and St. Johns tents in protests around Colombo.
She claims she has treated people for burn injuries from tear gas, or when trying to pick up and throw the canisters away from crowds. “Even though the effects of tear gas are supposed to subside within a few minutes, we saw that this wasn’t the case most of the time,” she added. Severe skin reactions including itching and peeling off of the skin on the face were other things observed in people with prolonged effects.
The Government Analyst Department confirmed that no standard checks of the chemicals in the tear gas are done.
The Police also told the Sunday Times that quality was often only checked on parameters like the reputation of the manufacturer, the other countries that bought from the particular manufacturer, and the cost.
“Technical committees provide specifications for tear gas before tenders are called,” noted SSP Thalduwa in light of the absence of pre-set standards for the chemicals used in Sri Lanka.
Tear gas is designed only to be used in instances of widespread violence against persons when violence cannot be contained by targeting individuals responsible for the violence.
International standards require that it can only be used when protesters can disperse easily and only until people have begun to disperse, which should be the law enforcement objective, and not in a “retaliatory manner” researcher Thyagi Ruwanpathirana noted.
“When considering the use of tear gas, authorities must always apply the test of necessity, legality, and proportionality,” she said.
Yasantha Jayasooriya, 33, was one who claims that he took a direct hit from a tear gas canister fired by police during a Satyagraha. He was hit while shielding other participants in the Satyagraha.
However, SSP Thalduwa noted that “all police officers in Sri Lanka receive basic training on how to shoot a gun”. Riot squads receive special training on how to handle all riot control agents and in-service operational training is also given to officers.
“The problem is not one of using tear gas alone, but mainly the use of force in Sri Lanka,” noted Sanjaya Colonne, former strategic affairs adviser to the Ministries of Defence, Public Security, Law, and Order. He noted that there are long-neglected factors affecting public order management as reflected in the “persistent disproportionality in the State’s use of force.”
Mr. Colonne noted that key sections of Police Departmental Orders — meant to regulate the use of force by police — have not been revised for decades.
Guidelines to redraft Police Departmental Orders, in accordance with modern legal and procedural norms or international good practice on the use of force have never produced any solid outcomes. “Political disinclination, bureaucratic red tape, and professional incapacity, involving both ministry officials and senior police officers, are responsible for this state of stagnation,” he said.
He added that even the newly enacted National Police Academy Act (2011) never got the political and professional attention it deserved.
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